Comedy with a few errors

A Cultural History of Humour
May 8, 1998

Everyone likes a good laugh - or at least one would assume this to be the case. It raises the spirits, exercises the respiratory system, helps the immune system and lowers blood pressure. Joking costs us nothing and helps build alliances and mock our foes. No wonder it is such a contested area of our cultural experience. It is undeniable that the links between humour and culture are complex and ever shifting. Encoded within humour are indicators of what a social group finds important, the ideas it is wrestling with, the boundaries it is trying to establish and the individual's relationship with the broader community.

What makes Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg's book so temptingly interesting is its historical sensitivity to the nature and form of humour through time. It presents 12 essays first presented at a conference in Amsterdam during 1994. In truth the book's title is misleading. Quite properly, the collection does not attempt to offer a single history of humour but rather a number of selective snapshots of particular moments in European history. The authors provide detailed examples of aspects of humour from Bremmer's exploration of Greek performance to Roodenburg's analysis of 17th-century Dutch joking. The reader is offered views on the practical joking of early modern Italy from Peter Burke and laughter's place within the establishment of the French Constitutional Assembly from Antoine de Baecque. Aaron Gurevich's chapter on Bakhtin is brief but immensely illuminating. However, there is little exploration of how these periods are linked or how we got from there to here.

It is unfortunate that the occasional density of the language exacerbates this distancing. The text appears to be aimed firmly at a specialised group of historians rather than at the general reader. This is disappointing, especially as humour studies itself continues to concretise a body of interdisciplinary literature. It would appear that, with the exception of Mary Lee Townsend's study of 19th-century German, Jacques Le Goff's chapter on laughter in the Middle Ages and Henk Driessen's analysis of the importance of humour to the anthropologist, contributors approach the study of humour from outside the current debates in the field.

The primary problem this causes is that attempts to provide a theoretical context for empirical findings appear naive in contrast to comparable analyses developed within the field of humour research itself. Arguments about the control of humorous material and its use both as a political tool and as a means of differentiating in-groups from out-groups have already been well rehearsed elsewhere.

However, the positive side of this approach is that many of the papers and the bibliography of historical studies on humour at the end of the collection highlight interesting works that often remain uncited in the American-dominated area of humour studies. For the interested researcher the book is worth indulging in if only to shudder at the richness of these, so far largely untapped, resources. Given the origins of the collection it is not surprising to see the presence of a high number of German and Dutch language works.

Perhaps the most lasting impression the reader takes from this collection is the manner in which it provides something at odds with its primary aim as laid out by the editors in their introduction. They suggest (erroneously) that all previous work in humour research has assumed that humour and laughter are transcultural and ahistorical and that the collection provides the cultural and historical sensitivity to explore the developments of humour. However, one cannot read the collection of essays without coming away with one particularly strong suspicion. It is difficult to see how, given history's repeated debates over the propriety of humour, there has been much change from ancient Greece to contemporary Britain.

Jason Rutter is research fellow in sociology, Institute for Social Research, University of Salford.

A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day

Editor - Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg
ISBN - 0 7456 1535 X and 1880 4
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £13.95
Pages - 264

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